The Purpose of Doubt: What Religion Teaches Us About its Place in Medicine
Jessica Frey, MD, Resident Physician, West Virginia University
Doubt has a controversial role in both religion and scientific practice due to the implication that doubt is undesirable. However, doubt may not only be necessary but also beneficial. For example, religion depends on the existence of doubt: faith asks for followers to believe in G-d without definitive proof. Since nothing is certain in this world, doubt actually gives rise to hope. The purpose of doubt in both religion and medicine is therefore two-fold: one, to create a sense of hope and two, to inspire the search for the truth.
The etymology of biblical terms for “doubt” suggest that doubt is vital for the development of hope. The Hebrew word for doubt is “ketar” which comes from the Aramaic word for “knot.” Doubt is a problem to be solved, just as a knot is to be untied. Interestingly, “ketar” can also refer to joints, specifically the vertebrae. Metaphorically, doubt is the backbone upon which we are able to stand on our own two feet and walk forward.
Various religious stories reflect how doubt is celebrated and used as a tool for truth. After Jacob fights with an angel, he is renamed “Israel,” meaning “wrestles with G-d.” This name is a humbling reminder of our own internal struggle with G-d, and that doubts existed even in religious patriarchs. One of the strongest Christian examples of doubt is when John the Baptist doubts that Jesus is the messiah; instead of reprimanding him, Jesus encourages him to look at all the facts and come to his own conclusions.
This same use of doubt to discern the truth was adopted by Hippocrates when he became the first advocate of evidence-based medicine. At a time when superstitions and magic dominated the field of healing, Hippocrates systematized medicine. In his text Ancient Medicine, Hippocrates calls for practitioners to scrutinize existing practices and embark on their own research to improve those practices. Anyone who does anything else is a “victim of deception.”
In order to avoid being a victim of deception, modern day medicine has developed specific research techniques. Doubt exists in many forms in medicine, often negatively: doubting the patient leads to cynicism in the patient-provider relationship, self-doubt leads to feelings of inadequacy, and doubt of scientific evidence leads to ignorance. Some studies have shown doubt affects non-religious physicians more often, leading to poorer coping mechanisms, higher rates of burnout, and more emotional distress. However, doubt also asks the important question: “What if?” This simple question spurs practitioners to hope for better treatments and outcomes for their patients, stimulates intellectual curiosity, and inspires them to conduct the clinical trials necessary to uncover truth.
Although doubt often carries a negative connotation, doubt is a mechanism for both spiritual and personal growth. In religion, faith would not exist without doubt; in medicine, innovative technologies and advancements would not exist without doubt. Thus, doubt is not a stagnant state of ignorance; rather, it is a vibrant, kinetic process of generating hope and discovering the truth.